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State Rep. Julie Johnson and trauma surgeon Brian Williams lead pack to succeed U.S. Rep. Colin Allred

By Sejal Govindarao, The Texas Tribune

State Rep. Julie Johnson and trauma surgeon Brian Williams lead pack to succeed U.S. Rep. Colin Allred” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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WASHINGTON — In 2018, Rep. Colin Allred flipped Texas’ 32nd Congressional District, turning the Dallas-based district into a blue stronghold. Now, as the Democrat vies to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a crowded field of 10 Democrats is lining up to replace him.

Dr. Brian Williams, a trauma surgeon, and State Rep. Julie Johnson, of Farmers Branch, are leading the field in the Democratic primary with their fundraising efforts, each amassing about a million dollars in campaign donations since their campaigns were registered at the beginning of last summer.

Ideologically, Williams and Johnson are aligned. They both rank health care a top priority if elected, and have touted their ability to work across the aisle.

Johnson, a trial lawyer in her third term in the state House rode the 2019 blue wave to unseat hardline conservative incumbent Matt Rinaldi, by 13 points. Rinaldi now chairs the state GOP. In her three terms, at least 40 of the bills Johnson has co-authored or joint-authored have been signed into law.

As a Democrat in the Republican-dominated state Legislature, Johnson has played a lot of defense trying to kill bills she and other progressives deem harmful. Johnson, who is gay, said she and other members of the House’s LGBTQ caucus have had success in killing anti-LGBTQ bills by mastering the rules of procedure and “being better at the rules than the other side.” In 2019, she took down a House version of the so-called “Save Chick-fil-A bill” on a rule technicality. The bill was a response to a San Antonio airport kicking out the fast food restaurant over criticism of its religiously affiliated donations to anti-LGBTQ groups. It was revived in another bill and passed into law.

If elected, Johnson would be the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress from a Southern state. She’s drawn notable endorsements from Beto O’Rourke, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, EMILY’s List, Equality PAC, and several labor unions.

Matt Angle, director of Lone Star Project, a Texas group that works to boost Democrats, said Johnson is the frontrunner in the race, but Williams is a formidable challenger.

“Make no mistake about it though,” Angle said. “Julie Johnson has a voter base within the district not only from her old district, but also just from years of being an active Democratic activist and a donor and really a couple of just outstanding terms in the legislature.”

While he may be new to the Texas political arena, Williams is no stranger to the halls of Congress.

Williams was a health policy adviser to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy — who endorsed him — to help pass the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act in 2022 – the farthest reaching gun safety legislation in decades. The legislation, crafted in the aftermath of the shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo New York, allocated millions of dollars to expand mental health resources, strengthens background checks and tightens the boyfriend loophole. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was a lead negotiator on the bill with Murphy, and Williams worked closely with Cornyn’s office. In his role as a health policy advisor for Murphy, he worked across the aisle with Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana on mental health legislation.

Williams also worked with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California to pass federal health care legislation related to pandemic preparedness and reducing health care costs.

Williams said his experience as a trauma surgeon — operating on victims of gun violence and women experiencing reproductive health emergencies — has fueled his priorities to fight for gun restrictions and increase access to abortions and other womens’ health. Williams added his perspective as a Black doctor seeing racial disparities in health care will resonate with the district’s diverse constituency, given that the district is now a majority-minority district with a 37% Hispanic or Latino population, 22% Black population and 8% Asian population.

“They’re excited that there’s someone that looks like them that can represent them in Congress,” Williams said in an interview.

As Allred opted to stay neutral in the race to succeed him – Williams said he had pursued his endorsement while Johnson said she had not – the tension between Johnson and Williams has been heating up.

Williams has publicly criticized Johnson for a vote she took that would have made some changes and tweaks to the state’s Alternatives to Abortions program, which provides information about resources to women seeking the procedure.

“I draw contrast between myself and Representative Johnson about how I am the better candidate,” Williams said.

Johnson, who is endorsed by Planned Parenthood, said Williams misrepresented the vote, which she said she cast to bring the already-funded program under the scope of the Health and Human Services Commission so it could be subject to public transparency. Her campaign published a fact-check on her website, likening Williams’ misrepresentation of her record to “Trumpian-style, false attacks.”

Johnson said women’s health is also a priority for her, and she stands by her record.

“Texas leads the nation of uninsured folks, and in maternal mortality, and in infant mortality. Obviously, we’re leading the nation in an attack on women’s freedom for women’s reproductive health, and I’ve been a champion of a lot of these issues,” she said.

Other candidates vying for the open seat in the March 5 primary include businessman Raja Chaudhry, tech entrepreneur Alex Cornwallis, former Dallas City Councilman and real estate broker Kevin Felder and attorney Callie Butcher, who would be the first openly transgender member of Congress if elected.

If no candidate gets a majority of the vote, there will be a runoff in May. The winner of the Democratic primary will face off against the winner of the Republican primary in November but is likely to win given that the district is solidly blue.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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